Shirley Jackson was a gifted horror storyteller

She described the gentle horrors that lurked behind the bourgeois scenes and was a specialist in horrifying scenarios. Now the author, who died in 1965, can be rediscovered.

Shirley Jackson in 1940.

A woman is about to have her third child. But before she can go to the hospital, she prepares breakfast for her family and does the dishes. It looks like nothing will work out in this family without the lady of the house. A few final pedagogical instructions to the husband, who may be completely overwhelmed with the two children, follow. Only then, at the very last moment, is the taxi called to take the heavily pregnant woman to the hospital.

The woman in question is Shirley Jackson. She was a writer in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s: the scene surrounding the birth of her third child can be read in one of her autobiographical novels, which is now entitled “Riod and Cookies” (originally: “Life Among the Savages”). ) was published in the German translation by Nicole Seifert.

Murderous lottery

“Rootball and Cookies” grew out of short stories that Jackson reworked into a cohesive narrative in 1953. Her starting material was columns that she had written regularly and for good money for magazines such as Harper’s, Mademoiselle and Good Housekeeping. In it she described episodes from her life as a mother and wife, dealing with the troubles and joys of everyday life.

That was the birth of what is now known as the “mama blog” and is a regular feature in many magazines. In this respect, the stories have a visionary character. But the domestic themes did not increase the author’s literary fame, rather they stood in the way of success.

Shirley Jackson first drew attention to herself in The New Yorker in 1943, when she was only 27 years old. Five years later, she caused a sensation with the short story “The Lottery”. In it she told of an invented folk ritual. The residents of a nameless village determine a “winner” in a raffle, who is then stoned to death by the other citizens. Using motifs from horror literature and stylistic borrowings from American Gothic, Jackson created a dark world that was depressingly like reality.

Jackson’s story unleashed a storm of indignation among New Yorker readers. The present-day pseudo-mythical plot, with the violent outburst of an apparently uncivilized savage horde, wounded the national pride and feelings of the American audience. The magazine had allegedly never received so many reactions to a literary contribution before.

That could have been the start of a great career. But Jackson had to organize a household with four children, three cats and a dog. As a literary scholar, her husband contributed little to the income. That’s why she was dependent on the fees from “Harper’s” and other magazines.

Jackson was only able to build on the success of “The Lottery” twice. “The Haunting of Hill House” from 1959 was filmed several times. And 1962’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” was an important influence on subsequent writers, Stephen King among them. But contemporary reception was less euphoric: Time magazine gave Shirley Jackson the condescending nickname Virginia Werewolf.

rediscovery of the work

On the other hand, the style-defining “mama blogs” were extremely popular with her readers. Shirley Jackson himself, however, did not think highly of it. She described them as inferior paid work. And the literary criticism? She agreed with the author’s verdict. Jackson was politely ignored, barely promoted, and never received a single literary award. The autobiographical newspaper articles were not perceived as literature at all, and their horror texts were mostly dismissed as entertainment.

Shirley Jackson’s work has recently experienced a renaissance. It is being read more and more and reassessed. Today’s audience appreciates her as a multi-talented author. The rediscovery came too late for Jackson, who died in 1965.

Today you don’t see much of a difference between Jackson’s money making and her more ambitious writing. Both parts of her work are characterized by an astonishingly good sense of the prevailing zeitgeist. Shirley Jackson always takes a sharp look behind the scenes of the staid bourgeoisie, where terror lurks beneath neatly ironed shirts and homemade biscuits.

The reactions to “The Lottery” had proven that Jackson was able to address real fears in the readers with stories that take place in an alienated horror world. In the autobiographical pieces, the abysses behind the bulwarks of civilization appear less threatening, but a subtle sarcasm creeps through the lines.

Shirley Jackson: Riot and Cookies. Translated from American English and with an afterword by Nicole Seifert. Verlag Arche Literatur, Hamburg 2022. 256 pages, CHF 33.90.

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